Immigration and Assimilation

Culture’s have a limit to the rate at which they can absorb new immigrants. And I’m not saying this because of some prejudice against new comers. Rather, I think it’s a matter of common sense – backed up by simple empirical observation.

And this ‘rate’ is not a constant. It varies with how similar the immigrants are to the culture they are joining.

Close cultural analogs like say, Canada and Britain, could absorb large numbers of each other’s people without much distress.

But when the receiving and donating cultures are significantly different, then concerns about what rates are supportable should come into play.

When new comers, who are significantly different than the receiving culture, immigrate into it at too high a rate, they will tend to collect into small insular communities based on their previous culture. If these insular communities grow faster than cultural assimilation can dilute them, the result will eventually be two distinct cultures living where one used to be and a type of cultural schizophrenia will result.

When a country’s culture is essentially cut from one cloth, one can say that the culture of the country ‘owns’ itself. One can say that ‘it’ can rightfully decide if ‘it’ wants to let immigrants in and in what quantities and from what sources. It is within its power to decide whether it wants to allow high rates of immigration and risk cultural schizophrenia – or if it wants to hold the rates low enough to make genuine assimilation by the new comers into the original culture probable.

But, once the immigration barn door has been left wide open for awhile and a large secondary culture is present, then this power of the original culture to decide its own fate erodes and eventually disappears – because the fate being decided is no longer exclusively its own. From that point forward, there are other voices who also have the power and the right to have a say about the country’s decisions and directions.

The central take-away idea here is that the point-of-power for the original monochromatic culture is when it still ‘owns’ itself. Then it still has the right to decide how things will evolve for itself. But once the culture has allowed itself to become multicultural, then the original culture no longer has the right to decide for everyone in the tent – much as they might regret their earlier enthusiasm for multiculturalism.

I said that a lot of this is based on common sense and empirical observations. Look at the U.S., France, Britain, Germany, Belgium and Holland just to name a few cultures which are now multicultural and somewhat schizophrenic as a result of it.

Ask yourself if the original German culture in Germany can and should be able now to make sweeping decisions about further Turkish immigration?

Perhaps they physically could, since they still outnumber the Turks, but the question runs a lot deeper than having a simple majority now. The Turks are there in sufficient numbers and for a long enough time that they have, or should have, a seat at the table when decisions are made in Germany about immigration. And, if the Germans don’t like it – well , the irony’s on them since they were the ones who originally invited the Turks to come. The same could be said of the U.S. and the Mexicans or France and the North Africans.

The following attributes of immigrants are important to think about when a country considers the rate at which they can allow immigration to proceed without Balkanization occurring:

– Do the immigrants speak the local language fluently?
– Do the immigrants share many of the same cultural assumptions?
– Do the immigrants share the same religious traditions?
– Do the immigrants have respect for the receiving culture?

As more of these attributes end up being answered with a ‘No‘, then the rate at which such people can be assimilated into their new culture without Balkanization occurring drops proportionally. In other words, the more different they are, the longer it will take for them to be assimilated and the fewer of them that can be dealt with at once.

Language is a tough one. It is very hard to feel at home, feel accepted and be accepted when you don’t speak the language of the new culture.

When the culture assumptions are different, it also makes assimilation more difficult. The way one dresses, the kinds of food one eats, the way business is conducted, how men and women interact publicly. All of these and more are mine fields that have to be navigated by the new immigrants if they are to be assimilated. The things that are familiar to them must be partially set aside and the ways that are foreign to them must be adopted if they hope to really assimilate into their new culture.

Neither of these barriers (language and culture) are easy to get by. And if, when you arrive in your new country, you find ready-made enclaves there of people speaking your language and practicing your cultural assumptions, then how likely is it that you are going choose to go through the hard work of assimilating into your new culture by living outside the enclaves and struggling to learning a new language? A few will – but most won’t.

Religion may or may not be a factor. Mexicans are culturally quite different than Americans or Canadians but they share the same root Christianity in their religious beliefs. But that’s not to say that a Buddhist from Southeast Asia or a Hindu from India would have a harder time being assimilated in America than a Mexican because they are Buddhist or Hindu. Frankly, I don’t think they would have a harder time because their religions are not essentially antithetical towards Christianity and western culture. But, in the more conservative variants of Islam – that’s another matter. Some conservative Muslim’s fundamentally believe that western culture is corrupt and that their mission as Muslims is to convert the world to Islam.

So the point really isn’t about religion but about whether or not the new immigrants have respect for the culture they are joining or if they’ve just decided that they can tolerate it in exchange for the other benefits that will accrue to them by living there.

I’m sure that there are those who will read what I’ve written here and think that I am a prejudiced and bigoted individual.

If you feel that way, I am sorry, but I must respectfully disagree. I think all I’ve done is point out the obvious mechanics that come into play when cultures are mixed.

The most important point I want to make here is directed at those countries who are still essentially composed of one culture; those countries who still essentially ‘own’ themselves and rightfully have the ability to decide how they wish their own future to evolve for the good of the people who live there now.

Unless you want to be split into multiple competing cultures at odds with each other, you must limit the rate of your immigration to levels that will allow the new comers to be genuinely assimilated into your dominate culture. You must select immigrants who speak your language fluently to optimize their probable success. And, you must select immigrants whose cultures and religions are not antithetical to your own; immigrants who will willingly accept being assimilated into their new culture because they can respect its values – rather than immigrants who disdain its values and will simply tolerate it until they can amass sufficient force to subvert it.

10 Responses to “Immigration and Assimilation”

  1. Michael Martin says:

    Dennis — a quick note that if one clicks your “activate spell check while typing” entry, then one is effectively blocked from any further typing (it self-erases any attempt at entry). As to your article, I am curious how you are finding your entry into New Zealand? Some items that may have been left out of consideration in your dissertation are income, criminal records, refugee/humanitarian and talent or lack thereof. As a prime example, you discovered the entry requirements of New Zealand; but placing yourself into your above scenario, would entry have been more difficult if you spoke a different language or had a different religion? Also, I think that you difficult viewpoint is coming from a relatively stable country’s viewpoint; what would Sudan or Congo accept (would it help if you had heavy political influence or were a weapons dealer?). A country’s acceptance policy can be good or bad, depending on the political leaders (vs. what the people do or don’t want). Here in the U.S., it only took one paranoid and insecure “leader” –aka Bush, Jr.– to plunge a country into fear, which doesn’t speak well for our populace that it could be so easily muted. So one mini-bully or dictator can indeed influence a country’s policies for decades. But in the long run –and this would likely mean a century or so– an open door might indeed change things, the strength or weakness of a country being the determining factor. The Muslim difference blending with a declining Christian belief in a country might lead to an entirely new and stronger religion (take the death of the mythic gods). A new language blended with a staid one might lead to growth in both arenas (look at businesses having to adopt, and the bully-failure of Wal Mart learning this lesson the hard way and having to depart Japan after unheard of losses, all due to Wal Mart’s unyielding stance to hire local managers but instead bring them in from Arkansas! Hey, they said, they’ll adapt to us or else; well, Japan boycotted instead, as did Germany, and now Bentonville is showing fewer and fewer profits and still refusing to adapt).
    Anyway, didn’t mean to get so long-winded. An excellent series on this is at Excellent stuff…and exemplified by the recent updated talk by Al Gore (and the lack of interest still displayed on global warming). Wishing you and your fans well down there…we’re still quite envious!

  2. Very interesting discussion of an issue that, as you know, is more complex than it looks on the surface. In general, I tend to favour an assimilation into a new multicultural reality, rather than the newcomers becoming a version of the dominant culture. This “social evolution”, I think, makes the new society richer. In a similar way, the English language has grown and thrived over the years by taking on words and phrases from hundreds of other languages–some dead–and made them part of English. Just as modern English is more vibrant and stronger than Old English, so, too, societies can become richer and stronger through this process.

    However, all that is based on what you were, I think, essentially getting at–a shared set of community values (some might call them “cultural values”). The rights of women are a good example of this, with some cultures still treating them as property. That’s not acceptable in a Western culture, and a newcomer would have to understand AND accept that.

    All of which gets at what you were saying that the culture and religion of the newcomer must not be antithetical the society they’re moving into. I’d obviously agree with that. My concern is that some people confuse difference with hostility. I don’t think that religious similarity, per se, is important; New Zealand, for example, has a Christian ancestry but is entirely secular. So, attracting fundamentalist Christians to New Zealand instead of secular Muslims (or Buddhists or whatever) would be antithetical even though some might see those people as similar.

    Another issue you didn’t touch on, but which I think is equally important, is that immigrants mush have respect for the original inhabitants of the country they’re moving to, like the Maori of New Zealand or the Aborigines of Australia, for example. Assimilating into the culture that now dominates those countries is important, but understanding and respecting the original culture is also important. In the case of New Zealand, the entire society is based on the partnership between the original inhabitants and the first newcomers, and nothing makes sense without that understanding, nor can one ever truly assimilate without it.

    As an American of European ancestry, I had a relatively easy time assimilating into New Zealand. People from African or Asian countries have a harder time due to appearance and language more than anything else (Kiwis, being not religious themselves, don’t care what someone else’s religion is). Those immigrants haven’t always had a very easy time, and Kiwis of longer tenure have had some trouble adapting, too. Personally, I think this could be eased with a tougher English language requirement (since it’s the dominant of New Zealand’s two official languages, and the one the country interacts with the world in). I stress that because I think that being able to communicate clearly would make it possible to get past many of those other things you mentioned.

    I welcome this discussion, and thank you for being part of it. Too often the whole thing degrades into a battle of stereotypes, so it’s refreshing to see a more thought-filled approach. Thanks!

  3. Joel Johnson says:

    Dennis: I acknowledge your basic premises. But feel you overlook some variations on these ideas. In sweden where, believe it or not, they have content laws over how many non native country and western singers can be played in a row on the radio, the turkish problem is viewed with distrust. but there is the greater benefit of the common market ongoing and govt adopted. In a fashion that reminds me of my mother talking bad about wellfare recipriants the native swedes talk bad about the overuse of the system by the turks(large families that stress the welfare system and are looked upon as future problems for the social security system they have). I think these are all arguments that were used to prejudice the first comers when the second comers started arriving in america. As for the language use I think it is apt that most of the immigrants learned english quickly or suffered in the long run and as long as there is a dominate language it will be what new comers must learn. (dominance being the operative idea!)In Belize you have a further convoluted system in that the british overlaid a spainish variation on the natives that was a variation of the previous native warlords. Those that would progress learned the new language and cultural traditions. even today you have traditional and contemporary cultures and a mixed culture with aspects of both these and a synthesis that is more vibrant than either. This is true of Argentina where the influx of immigrants was contemporary with our own at the end of the 1800’s. The cultures of south america are all moving into a vibrant synthesis that has little documented direction but seems to have numerous aspects of previous traditions and new variations on political styles. The joker in the deck is how these changing cultures will mesh into the world culture as they adopt ,and modify economic and cultural/political forms as they move forward.Out of the darkness of dictatorship and into the wildcard cowboy capitalism of tommorow. There truely are cultural imperitives that affect national world views but with communication(I think you could expand considerably on this feature of change) speeding up and ideas being exchanged at higher rates then in the past you will see faster resolve of conflict and adaptation to events.(Look at the way technology and it adaptation affects the culture that adapt it later as the way aviation is dominated by english as a world convention at all international airports!) The luddites will become less meaningful and the ability to synthesize will become the true treasure of a culture group not the natural resources they happen to control.Look at the way arab oil sheiks are moving into finance and viewing oil as a springboard for their culture to dominate from. While those living in small minds and small communities will continue to scream they are right(too far right I think) The majority will control the shifting cultural imperatives and I think you hinted at this with some vague prejudice that was observational not advocational. Look at it this way like psychology(which hasn’t done anything new since Pavlov got a dog to water at the mouth) , economics hasn’t really generated any new incite since Adam Smith wrote “THE WEALTH OF NATIONS” and basically this whole issue is driven by social economics( my point being that we are still in the dark ages when it comes to understanding culture flux and directional changes).. Do you think the people that trouble shoot commputers over the phone from New Dehli learn british standard english for curiosity? There is a drive inherent in most cultures to build better for yourself and your family and kinsmen(whoever they may be). Now I enjoy the Muslim commentary void the cultural imperatives. This is a tribal culture where it is sport to lie to strangers and sharp dealing is an art form and like the mormons dealing with outsiders ,anyone not of your culture(read tribe) is fair game for abuse and use and like the chinese this attitude is understood and never needs to be talked about. While the basic writings of the muslims are very similair to the judeo-christian thoughts they suffer the same as we do here in amerika where the fundamentalist claim true religion and hell fire for all others(and in the past have used this misinterpretation to justify slavery and wife beating among other blasphemys). Here where I live in “CLUCK COUNTY” (vancouver ,Wa) the Russian population is swelling as the Jehovah Witnesses and the Seventh Day Adventist bring familys sponsoredby the church to america to feast. I’m all for folks arriving and taking the same chance I got but when they can arrive and scam the system for benefits I can’t access it pisses me off! They arrive, pop gets a job from a church member and the family can access food stamps and welfare because pop don’t make enough to keep them afloat. This translates as the church that sponsored them putting their cost on the tax payers back. Now the beauty comes when they realize that to use the system is to support the system! These folks mostly lived by underground economy in Russia and now are creating a vast underground economy here based on barter and exchange. New for amerikans used to the rape of retail!(I liked the wallmart comments for pointing out how a system built on arrogance suffers when faced with subtle and ancient bussiness associations) So in the long run I think the culture will become more vibrant, and lets hope better with more amerikan than russian imperatives! Bottom line for all this is that there will always be stressed and distressed groups as culture groups systhesize and some rise to the top and other disappear. And in the process you will have positive and negative commentary and those that can willing their requirements on the ones knocking on the door wanting to be let in. Fairness isn’t even the question but how to get/have the right attitude to understand and benefit is whats needed! I myself advocate for a place at the table for all, realizing that many of us will sit “below the salt” and while life may not be fair it is all we got. And we should be judged not by what we have, but who/how we have helped. Dennis I’m sure we could exhaust ourselves kicking this one around. I think the whole thing is “sinthetic” That is when the devil wants more he makes more, of whatever. Its basic darwinian conspiracy theory if you asked me. and satire is the only hope.

  4. You are absolutely right regarding: Immigration and Assimilation.

    I don’t consider you racist or anything other than correct about the way immigration/assimilation works.

    I will say that for incoming cultures that don’t mesh well with receiving cultures, the onus should be on the incoming culture to adapt to their “chosen” culture. Yes, it’s nice if the receiving culture tries to make assimilation easier for the incoming culture, but it should be expected for the incoming culture to adapt. Not to pick on one culture but, burkhas and such should only be worn on special religious occasions in westernized cultures. The same for any major religious difference. If in doubt, they should watch local television or read magazines to get some idea of how a particular culture dresses. When in Rome, do as the Romans do, etc.

  5. Lisa G says:

    Interesting, especially considering your own experiences with the process. I don’t consider you racist but realistic. Your readers also made some valid points. I would need to think long and hard before ever trying to capture my thoughts, because as of right now I’m thinking only of war refugees that don’t have choices. But as for dressing the way the Romans dress, I’m all up for individuals honing their own unique style, regardless of which environment they are in. Just because the masses are dong something isn’t a good enough reason to do it oneself, unless unconscious peer pressure is enough of an external directive and the soul is content to make do instead of making something up or creating something authentic. P.S. I’ll be in Seattle June 18-24. Will you be around?

  6. Dennis says:

    Lisa, Indeed I will. Let’s get together. We’ll talk via E-mail off-line from the Blog. Cheers!

  7. Bob Sampson says:

    Hi Dennis
    As a NZ aquaintance of yours I can read between the lines of you reason for this article. Or I think so.
    Firstly your notion that new immigrants must adapt and assimilate is correct for a society to function. The current examples of most European countries with large unassimilated enthnic populations state the case adequately.
    My experience of post WW2 (1945 and later for you who cannot remember back that far ) immigrants to Australia demonstrated what you are saying.
    Italians, Greeks and from the UK arrived in great numbers. The first two arrived with the arse out of there pants but funnily enough looked down on the steriotyped Aussie and stuck to their own cultures and made many suburban ghetoes in the large cities. To cut this ramble short it took a further two generations before these groups were fully integrated….. the biggest factor achieving this was peer pressure the youngsters experienced in attending primary  school.
    Much lesser numbers arrived from Holland, Germany, Yogoslavia and other regions of Europe. These mostly spread out over the country. Because of lack of numbers they did not form city ghetoes and assimilated quickly.

    Back to what I think what is your concern….. NZ’s recent Asian immigrant population gains…. 10% of the total population and rising fast.  Yes we are creating near future problems for our society as the numbers are too high for us to assimilate. Do we need these pressures. Do the Asian countries allow mass, not to mention individual , immigration, into their societies ?  Before the misty eyed PC brigade reply with the obligitary PC cries of “red neck” crap etc pleaseand  note that I am happily married  to and have several young children with an Asian lady. She also endorses the above.  THE PROBLEMS OF ASSIMILATION LIES IN THE NUMBERS INVOLVED NOT IN THE ETHNIC GROUPING.

  8. kyledeb says:

    Dear Dennis,

    Thanks for thinking to email me when you wrote this. Rather than respond at length to your post I’ll just write a sort of general argument. First of all these arguments are not new. This post reminds me very much of the arguments of Samuel Huntington’s book Who Are We?. I personally haven’t read the entire book but the arguments are very similar and Huntington’s.

    I have to say that I find the arguments extremely problematic. First of all, much of what you are talking about can’t be empirically defined, and once you try even conceptually this idea of a dominant culture that you’re professing troubles me a great deal. What does that mean, that migrants have to assimilate into a white male dominated culture until more can be let in?

    You see this concept of a dominant culture, or even one culture making up a society is inherently false for history shows that any community, take the U.S. for example, is made from competitions narratives and democratic reiterations of different groups. With the argument above the U.S. could have argued for the continuation of slavery to preserve the dominant culture, and we could view the civil rights movement as bad because it was the first time black people took their destiny into their own hands and forced the dominant culture to do something they didn’t want to do.

    When did multiculturalism become a dirty word? That’s the beauty of the U.S. system it’s able to take people from all over the world and have them peacefully coexist within a system that does not recognize the worth of a person from a “dominant culture” over the worth of another.

    My eloquence in refuting your arguments eludes me, but a quick search of samuel huntington should help you find rebuttals to your post. I hope all is well.

  9. Citizen K says:

    This post has been prompted primarily by kyledeb’s response to Dennis. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about issues of citizenship, and I found this entire thread quite thought-provoking.

    > First of all, much of what you are talking about can’t
    > be empirically defined,

    If we’re talking about the assimilation of an immigrant minority into a larger culture — though admittedly a complex reality — I think at least parts of it can be empirically defined/captured. I’m thinking primarily in terms of language communities.

    So what aspects of assimilation can be broken down into specific, measurable elements?

    1. Ability in the dominant language. This is empirically measurable, and a pivotal component of assimilation. An incoming immigrant and his/her family who are not native speakers of their new country’s dominant language can be given a standardized language test, then given the same test after a certain period (say, two years). Those who have not improved in fluency by a particular degree (or who have even lost language ability, which can happen when immigrants live in self-created “language ghettoes”) are failing at assimilation.

    (If someone can give me an example of an immigrant who does not master the dominant language of the land but is somehow meaningfully assimilated, I’d like to hear it.)

    Note that I think accents would have to be considered — i.e., heavy/ indecipherable accents that impede communication would be considered a problem needing correction, whereas accents that do not impair communication would not. How would this be assessed? With trained language experts, per a proficiency standard. We live in an imperfect world and doubtless such a process would be imperfect, but the goal would to create a common society and a cohesive citizenry via promotion of a common language/literacy.

    Does this mean that Grandma refusing to learn the new language represents a social problem? Of course not. But if only the primary breadwinner speaks the dominant language well, while the spouse shops only at native language stores or socializes exclusively in their native language (a common immigrant community phenomenon) and the kids are going to a native language private school (less common, but possible), is this family meaningfully assimilating? No. And (I would argue) this is a problem for the greater society.

    How does a progressive society prevent language ghettoization? Require a high level of language fluency for citizenship, perhaps per particular age brackets (for example, exempt Grandma/Grandpa), and provide tax exemptions for businesses that teach the dominant language to non-native speakers (i.e., encourage the growth of language fluency but without subsidizing the lessons — the burden of learning the dominant language should fall to the immigrant).

    2. Demographic density. This is empirically measured in censuses. This gets at what Bob Sampson talks about above vis-a-vis Greeks and Italians self-segregating in Australia — ethnic groups clumping together into neighborhoods. In and of itself, this is not problematic. My grandmother grew up in Chicago in the 1930s, and she said you could guess if someone was Irish, Italian, Polish, German, or Lithuanian by their street address.

    So, ethnic neighborhoods represent a measurable dimension of assimilation.

    Birds of a feather flock together, it’s natural and it’s not a problem — unless such communities foster a sense of ethnic identity at the expense of a national identity (“We may be Vietnamese-American, but we’re Vietnamese first”). Based on my own experience, I am thinking of the tension between second-generation Norteño gangs in San Jose and their resentment of first-generation Sureños — “Mexican-Americans” who speak English as well as Spanish, versus “Mexicans in America” who speak limited English.

    Again, the existence of ethnic neighborhoods per se is not problematic, but there could be aspects of those communities that would indicate an assimilation problem. Which segues to points #3 and #4…

    3. Businesses conducting commerce in the non-dominant language. Though probably not conventionally tracked by social scientists, this is empirically measurable, both in terms of its existence as a social phenomenon and in terms of economic activity.

    The existence of businesses that conduct commerce only or primarily in a language other than the dominant language of the land suggests cultural “gheotto-ization”. While dual-language business are far more common, for obvious reasons (far more economic opportunity with the dominant language community), there are places (Chinatown in almost any major city, parts of East L.A. where Spanish is the only language, etc.) where the language of the land is not to be found.

    What might a progressive society do to address this? First, require fluency in the dominant language to get a business license (so at least the owner is functionally bilingual) and require all business signage be dual language. Then let “the market” take care of the rest. In other words, the evolution of business activity in the non-dominant language is a natural phenomenon that really cannot be controlled, so don’t try — but take reasonable steps to encourage business activity to “face” the dominant language community.

    4. Media language. The existence of media channels that broadcast exclusively in the non-dominant language is empirically measurable, and also problematic to assimilation. Again, it encourages language ghettoization.

    A progressive society would allow such channels, but require a significant fraction (33%? 50%?) of prime-time programming to be dual-language. How? Get creative. Have shows that are bilingual, or broadcast in foreign language with dominant language subtitles for 30 minutes, then 30 minutes vice-versa. (Grandma/Grandpa might be annoyed, but they may learn a little of the common tongue despite themselves. 😉 ) This also creates a business opportunity for dual language programming, so it fosters overall lingual assimilation — and incidentally exposes the dominant language community to the particular foreign language community. (Imagine watching those cool Chinese period-piece soap operas, but instead of the language being Cantonese with Mandarin subtitles, English subtitles.)

    Publications would have similar requirements (all ads would need to be dual language, and some significant fraction of content would have to be dual language as well).

    Under no circumstances should a society print ballots or permit political campaigning in anything other than the dominant language. Citizenship would be entirely in one language and one language only. You want to participate as a citizen? Learn the language of the land.

    Upshot: my implied point, obviously, is that assimilation is most importantly about speaking the same language. That’s not all there is to it, obviously, but I think if a society works to ensure people can talk to each other, they can work out their problems with each other organically, and society will change and evolve over time, rather than trying to enshrine a particular ethnic community or interest group.

    > that migrants have to assimilate into a white male
    > dominated culture until more can be let in?

    Dennis’ point about the rate of immigration for an ethnic/language minority is a good one. The greater society should be concerned about tribalization/ghettoization, because it erodes civic cohesion and the overall society’s ability to find common cause and work together. If a society does not work to mitigate tribalization, then you’re left with the problems you see in parts of Europe, Canada, the U.S.: tribalization/ factionalization. A common language is merely a preliminary step to address this problem. (Witness France, where Francophone descendents of Arab/African immigrants are still not considered “truly French”.) Getting people to speak the same language merely allows for a dialog — but without that, you can’t even have that dialog.

    It’s not about the dominant culture’s values being better; it’s about the degree of participation in the meta-ethnic, meta-religious civil society. It’s the difference between genuine immigration/ assimilation, versus various manifestations of economically-centered “colonization” or Gastarbeiterprogramm.

    And if you want to use American society as the example of a male-dominated culture, let’s talk about African societies that practice female genital mutilation, or about female babies abandoned in droves in China. Which culture is the most misogynistic?

    That said, I’m not arguing American society doesn’t have room for improvement.

    > You see this concept of a dominant culture, or even
    > one culture making up a society is inherently false for
    > history shows that any community, take the U.S. for
    > example, is made from competitions narratives and
    > democratic reiterations of different groups.

    I see your point, but with all due respect: try telling an African-American that the culture in the U.S. isn’t predominantly “white”.

    The overall culture may be a rainbow, but one of those stripes is as broad as all the other stripes put together. That’s significant.

    Yes, of course: not only is every society multi-valent, every *citizen* is multi-valent. Each of us is a nexus of narratives. But to say that that means there are no dominant narratives — dominant sub-cultures, if you will — is a kind of political correctness. It’s like saying that there is no such thing as a forest, there are only large collections of leaves. There are leaves, there are trees, there are forests — they are different in kind but related, and they are all real. Their comparative reality is a function of context.

    There *are* dominant cultures. Furthermore, some cultures — whether dominant in a particular social/national venue or not — are better than others. By “better” I mean more just, more respectful of the rights of individual people.

    > With the argument above the U.S. could have argued for
    > the continuation of slavery to preserve the dominant culture,
    > and we could view the civil rights movement as bad because
    > it was the first time black people took their destiny into their
    > own hands and forced the dominant culture to do something
    > they didn’t want to do.

    I don’t think Dennis was trying to make an argument for blanket hidebound conservatism. You’ve knocked down a straw man.

    The issue of slavery was addressed in the original draft of the American Declaration of Independence; even the U.S. Founders (some of them, anyway) recognized it was inconsistent with Enlightenment values. Slavery was preserved as a political compromise, not a philosophical one.

    The American Civil War was not a confrontation between a dominant culture and an arriviste culture, or between an indigenous culture and a colonizer. It was a struggle within a particular political culture for dominance of vision. One could argue that it was an example of a minority pro-slavery culture being dragged kicking and screaming into an anti-slavery mainstream culture at the point of a bayonet. The civil rights movement furthered the process of social integration.

    It bears pointing out that slavery was not overturned in the U.S. by African-Americans — it was overturned (overwhelmingly and despite units like those depicted in the 1989 film _Glory_) by white people fighting against other white people. Really the American Civil War was about the right of a dominant culture to impose itself on a cultural minority (yes, abolitionism vs. pro-slavery, but also federalism vs. states’ rights).

    Likewise, the civil rights movement was not just a movement of African-Americans — it was a movement of those Americans who advocated a “color-blind society” (admittedly hugely African-American, but not exclusively, as martyrs like Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner demonstrate) versus those who preferred social (and in some backwaters, even political) apartheid.

    > When did multiculturalism become a dirty word?

    Multiculturalism, which properly means respect for cultural differences, is a dirty word to the extent that it is conflated with cultural relativism, which is not only problematic but extremely dangerous. Cultural relativism is a form of ideological cancer: cell growth is good, tumors are bad; respecting cultures is good, holding all cultural systems as equally valid is bad. Moreover, it’s insane. All cultures are not created equal. Some are (very demonstrably) better than others. Period.

    Multiculturalism is a dirty word to the extent that it encourages every tribe to put its own good over that of the community as a whole.

    > That’s the beauty of the U.S. system it’s able to take
    > people from all over the world and have them peacefully
    > coexist within a system that does not recognize the worth
    > of a person from a “dominant culture” over the worth of
    > another.

    The beauty of the U.S. system, to the extent that it works, is the triumph of a culture of imposed tolerance over a legion of different prejudices and chauvanisms. It is the triumph of Rawlsian “Public reason” in the creation of a society that optimizes simultaneously the freedoms and rights of individual citizens. This realized thought experiment is an artifact of a Western Enlightenment culture (or perhaps that should be “Culture”).

    I think to the degree our viewpoints differ it is because we define culture differently. I think perhaps you are meaning “culture” more in the sense of a social/ethnic/tribal identity, whereas I tend to think of it more as an ideological system of norms.

    Thanks for the opportunity for a good think, everyone — particularly kyledeb, who provided me the opportunity to sharpen my perspective on a number of issues.

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